CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — During Tuesday’s board meeting, the Clarksburg Water Board voted 2-1 to authorize the board’s attorney to draft an agreement between the Water Board and the Harrison County Commission to transfer ownership of three dams that the CWB currently owns and were scheduled to demolish this fall.
If the transfer of property is agreed upon, there’s a strong possibility that the Harrison County Commission could choose to end this project, which has been in the making for a decade. It would amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal tax dollars gone to waste.
“On one hand, I would like them to tell us now so that we can prevent more taxpayer dollars on this project if they’re really not interested in following through,” Callie McMunigal with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. “But on the other hand, we have an obligation to continue forward with the project we have promised to do for them.”
The future of the dams is as murky as ever after Paul Howe and John Calvert voted for the authorization, with Al Cox dissenting.
“They can not help us with any liability or civil liability,” Cox said. “Their attorneys said that. Our attorneys said it. I’m concerned about civil liability.”
Discussion on this project began years ago when the board was looking to rid themselves of the liability after three people drowned in 2000 after their canoe was pulled under the Highland dam and the board was among those sued for damages.
This type of incident is not uncommon with similar dams around the country, as hydraulic experts define them as “killer dams” or “drowning machines” due to the Roller Effect.
“When the water spills over these dams and plunges straight down, it creates this circulating pattern. Things will wash over and then wash away and then get ripped right back under the dam,” John Schmidt, a field supervisor with U.S. Fish and Wildlife explained. “That’s what caused those people to drown.”
These type of dams are typically quiet as well, meaning travelers on the river have to take extra precaution to not come upon one unexpectedly.
The report compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, in conjunction with the Canaan Valley Institute, found that the environmentally friendly, cost effective solution was to remove the dams.
Representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service remain hopeful that the project to remove the dams along the West Fork River will continue regardless of who owns the property.
“It’s a little disappointing if this doesn’t happen,” Schmidt said. “I could have spent that money somewhere else in West Virginia doing really good things for a lot of other communities.”
The vote does not officially put the dams into the hands of the Harrison County Commission. Rather, it expresses the possibility of an agreement and both sides would need to come to acceptable terms.
John Calvert, the newest member of the Water Board, expressed that he’d like to see a plan-of-action from the Harrison County Commission before he would officially vote to ratify an agreement like this.
“We’re definitely going to mitigate our liability by taking them out,” Calvert said. “But at the same we could open up some new liabilities as well because we’re invested in that project. If we can give it to the County Commission who can oversee it much better than we can, that’s a win-win to me.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they will continue with the planned project since the Clarksburg Water Board still owns the dams in question. The contract they agreed to with the Clarksburg Water Board will carry over to the Harrison County Commission if the two bodies are able to come to an agreement–at least that’s how they’re currently interpreting the situation.
“As of right now they have signed our land-owner agreement that gives us permission to remove the dams, and we’re planning on doing that this fall,” McMunigal said. “So as soon as the water level drops.”
Back in March, the water board voted 2-1 to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to utilize federal funding in order to remove the Highland, Two Lick and West Milford Dams, renovate the Hartland Dam and implement other measures to improve recreation in the area.
“We have promised them in votes in 2010, 2012, and 2014, that we’ll do this project,” Cox said. “You get the funding, we’ll do it. And now our word is not any good. We’ve reneged on this apparently. In addition to that, the Clarksburg Water Board has spent thousands of dollars in time and effort on the project.”
In 2012, the water board voted 3-0 to authorize U.S. Fish and Wildlife to seek funding for the demolition project. Schmidt said it took some time, but eventually they came up with the roughly $400,000 needed for the work and cleanup.
During that time, however, a group known as the Guardian of the West Fork and other concerned citizens began a campaign to save the dams, eventually gaining the support of the Harrison County Commission.
If the project were to be completed, it would be the first restoration work of its kind in the Mountain State. However, similar projects are done routinely by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in other states, where opposition from local governments is not known to happen.
“When I talk to my colleagues in New England and New Jersey and New York, usually it’s the governments that are pushing the private people to get [the dams] out,” Schmidt said. “This is a little odd. This was not anticipated.”
One of the main concerns from the opposition is eliminating the dams would eliminate recreational opportunities in the area and disrupt a proposed water trail that runs from Marion County to Stonewall Jackson Lake. Currently in a kayak, on can paddle both downstream and upstream with the dams impeding the natural flow of the river.
However, Schmidt said recreational opportunities would not be deterred with the demolition of dams, as most water trails around the country do not have dams.
“Most people that float rivers tend to use shuttles –they put it out at the high point and they get out downstream– and they float down the river, guiding their canoe or their kayak or their jon boat with their paddles and oars and such.”
He also said the dams are not currently as safe as they could be for boaters to navigate through them.
The Harrison County Commission brought in a specialist from Boulder, Colorado-based Recreation Engineering and Planning, to evaluate the cost of modifying the dams for safe passage by boat. In his estimate, it would cost between $360,000 and $500,000 for work on the Two Lick, Hartland and West Milford Dams –an estimate for the Highland Dam could not be completed in the time allotted.
The county could face the additional cost of paying back the U.S. Fish and Wildlife for the work they have done in researching the project –estimated at approximately $200,000 by Schmidt– should they breach the contract once it is passed off to them.
The contract can only be negated if both parties meet a mutual agreement, which Schmidt indicated the agency was not interested in reaching such an agreement at this time, putting them in an uncomfortable position.
“We’ve spent a ton of taxpayers money to get to this point,” he said. “I’m trying to be fiscally responsible but also understand the concerns of the community.”
The county commission recently penned letters the the state’s congressional delegation, asking for assistance in getting U.S. Fish and Wildlife to back off.
Additionally, even if ownership of the dams is transferred to the county commission, the water board could still be held responsible for future incidents due to legacy liability.
Legacy liability means the CWB could still be held liable in a civil suit if such action were taken in the future. This liability continues to be the number one concern, which is why Cox so staunchly supports removing the dams. He believes doing anything other than removing them is fiscally irresponsible.
“It’s our obligation to our ratepayers and to our citizens of the city to make sure the dams are safe for everybody,” Al Cox said. “It’s not just a dollars and cents thing. It’s an injury and loss of life thing.”
But the dynamics of the situation are complex. The Clarksburg Water Board owns the dams, and all three board members did agree that their number one obligation is to be fiscally responsible to their ratepayers–which means removing liability. But the people who are most likely to be impacted don’t have a say in who is on the Clarksburg Water Board because the dams in question are not in Clarksburg. That’s one of the reasons Calvert thinks that a county-wide agency would be better equipped to handle this type of issue.
“Just good faith from them on what they feel is best for their constituents in that neck of the woods,” he said. “Good faith that they’re going to look over the property well and do what’s best for recreation, fishing, wildlife–what’s best for everyone.”
In the near-term, the project will continue even if the ground underneath it is shaking. In the long-term, attorneys will need to draft a conveyance agreement on the property in question, discuss the transfer of liability, and see whether or not the Harrison County Commission has a plan-of-action. These are all key components in whether or not there will be enough votes to ratify a potential future agreement.
Whether or not the dams in question will actually be removed remains as uncertain as ever.